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The Plantation System

At an unknown coastal site in the region that is now the Carolinas, what may have been the first European settlement in North America was founded (1526; not permanent) by an expedition under the Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón. The Frenchman Jean Ribaut established (1562) a short-lived Huguenot settlement on Parris Island in Port Royal Sound, but French colonizing ambitions were thoroughly thwarted by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Spanish missions soon extended N from Florida almost to the site of present-day Charleston, and they remained until the arrival of the English.

Charles I asserted England's claim as early as 1629 by granting the territory from lat. 36-°N to lat. 31-°N (later named Carolina for Charles I) to Sir Robert Heath, but since no settlements were made Heath's charter was forfeited. In 1663, Charles II awarded the area to eight of his prominent supporters, the most active of whom was Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later 1st earl of Shaftesbury ).

The northern and southern sections of Carolina developed separately. The first permanent colony was established in 1670 at Albemarle Point under William Sayle. To govern it, John Locke and others wrote (at Lord Ashley's behest) the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which granted some popular rights but also retained feudal privileges and limitations. It was never ratified. The actual government consisted of a powerful council, half of which was appointed by the proprietors in England; a governor, also appointed by the proprietors; and a relatively weak assembly, elected by all freemen. In 1680 the colony moved across the river to Oyster Point, which was better suited for defense. There the colonists established their capital, called Charles Town (later Charleston), which was to become the chief center of culture and of wealth in the South.

The 1680s saw the beginnings of prosperity. Wealthy colonists set up plantations worked by indentured servants and African and Native American slaves, while freemen (many of them former indentured servants) cultivated the 50 acres (20 hectares) of land granted them by the proprietors. On plantations and small farms alike, corn, livestock, and some cotton were raised at first, and tobacco was cultivated in plenitude. Rice, introduced c.1680, flourished in the marshy tidewater area and soon became the plantation staple. Forests yielded rich timber and naval stores. The fur trade (especially in deerskins) with the Creek and other tribes prospered. But conflict with the Spanish and French increased, and the encroachment of the two countries dramatized the proprietors' lack of concern and their inability to defend the distant colony. Popular antagonism to proprietary rule was spurred by the parceling of much of the land into a few large grants, by the quitrent system, and most importantly by the issue of religion.

Several religious groups had freely practiced their faith in the colony until the early 18th cent.; these included Anglicans, dissenters from Britain (see nonconformists ), and French Huguenots. In 1704 the Anglicans, without opposition from the proprietors, managed to deprive the other groups of their religious liberty, and it was not until the English government took action (1706) that religious toleration was restored.

The colony was divided into North and South Carolina in 1712. In 1715-16 the settlers were attacked by the Yamasee, who had become resentful of exploitation by the Carolina traders. The uprising was finally quelled after much loss of life and property. These attacks further revealed the lack of protection afforded by the proprietors, and in 1719 the colonists rebelled and received royal protection. The crown sent Francis Nicholson as provincial royal governor in 1720, and South Carolina formally became a royal colony in 1729, when the proprietors finally accepted terms.

Conditions for the colonists were now in many respects improved. Pirates such as Blackbeard who had infested the coast had been hanged or dispersed. In addition the founding (1733) of Georgia to the south provided a buffer against the Spanish. Loss of territory and some of the colony's fur trade to Georgia was more than compensated for when indigo, supported by British bounty, became (1740s) the colony's second staple. To counterbalance the vast number of African slaves transported to the colony for use as plantation labor, European immigration was encouraged. Germans and Swiss, arriving in the 1730s and 40s, and Scotch-Irish and other migrants from Virginia and Pennsylvania, arriving in the 60s, settled the colony's lower middle country and uplands.

Regional antipathies were generated by economic and social differences; the small, self-sufficient farmer of the up-country, demanding courts, roads, and defense against outlaws and the Cherokee , elicited little sympathy from the powerful plantation lords of lower Carolina. In the late 1760s discontent culminated in the formation of the Regulator movement . Finally the legislature gave in to some up-country demands, including the establishment of courts in the region.

Virginia (named for Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen) at first included in its lands the whole vast area of North America not held by the Spanish or French. The colony on Roanoke Island , organized by Sir Walter Raleigh , failed, but the English soon made another attempt slightly farther north. In 1606 James I granted a charter to the London Company (better known later as the Virginia Company), a group of merchants lured by the thought of easy profits in mining and trade. The company sent three ships and 144 men under captains Christopher Newport , Bartholomew Gosnold , and John Ratcliffe to establish a base, and the tiny force entered Chesapeake Bay in Apr., 1607. On a peninsula in the James River they founded (May 13, 1607) the first permanent English settlement in America, which they called Jamestown . It soon became clear that the company's original plans were unrealistic, and the Jamestown settlers began a long and unexpected struggle to live off the land.

By 1608, despite the firm and resourceful leadership of John Smith , hunger and disease had reduced their numbers to 38. The company responded by sending supplies and men as well as new leadership in the person of Sir Thomas Gates , who was to take charge as deputy governor under the authority of a new charter (1609). Gates arrived in 1610 to find that only a handful of settlers had survived the terrible winter (the "starving time" ) of 1609-10. He decided to take them back to England, but as they were about to abandon the colony in June, 1610, his superior, Governor Thomas West, Baron De la Warr , ordered them to reoccupy Jamestown. Although sickness and starvation continued to take a heavy toll, the settlement at last began to make headway under the harsh regimes of Sir Thomas Dale , De la Warr's successor in 1611, and later under that of Sir Samuel Argall .

Tobacco, first cultivated by John Rolfe in 1612, gave the company new hope of a profitable return on its investment. To encourage settlement and improve agricultural productivity it granted colonists (still technically employees and shareholders) the right to own private gardens, then, at the urging of Sir Edwin Sandys , promised to give 100 acres (40 hectares) of its land to purchasers of stock and 50 acres (20 hectares) to settlers who brought over other settlers at his own expense (the "head-right" system). The company also set up smaller joint-stock companies to settle vast tracts known as "colonies" or "hundreds." In 1619, at the instruction of the company, Governor George Yeardley provided additional incentives to settlers by forming a house of burgesses-the first representative assembly in the New World-and in 1620 by beginning to send women to the colony.

Although these various expedients did succeed in attracting new settlers and strengthening the colony, the company itself failed to prosper. Rolfe's marriage (1614) to Pocahontas , daughter of chief Powhatan , secured good relations with the Native Americans for a time, but in 1622 Powhatan's son Opechancanough led the Powhatan Confederacy in a surprise attack on the colony, killing 350 settlers (about one third of the total community). English retaliation effectively ended Native American resistance, except for a final uprising of the Confederacy in 1644. However, the 1622 attack had delivered a fatal blow to the company, and in 1624, beset by internal dissension, it surrendered its charter to the crown.

After almost two decades as a private enterprise, Virginia became a royal colony, the first in English history. Partly because the English kings were occupied with affairs at home, the Virginia house of burgesses was able to continue its functions and won formal recognition in the late 1630s. Thus representative government under royal domain was assured. By 1641, when Sir William Berkeley became governor, the colony was well established and extended on both sides of the James up to its falls.

Three fourths of the European settlers (about 7,500 in 1641) had come as indentured servants or apprentices, but many of them became freemen and small farmers. In 1641 there were also about 250 Africans (the first had arrived in 1619 on a Dutch ship), most of whom were indentured servants rather than slaves. The freeholders, together with the merchant class (from which were descended most of the "first families of Virginia" ), controlled the government. Only white males were enfranchised, and property-owning qualifications for voting continued during and after the colonial period.

Most of the white settlers were Anglicans, and during the civil war in England, many well-to-do Englishmen (mainly Anglicans and supporters of Charles I, if not actually Cavaliers) came to Virginia. The colony was understandably loyal to the crown until 1652, when an expedition sent by Oliver Cromwell forced it to adhere to the Puritan Commonwealth. With the Commonwealth busy at home, Virginia was practically independent until 1660, engaging in free trade with foreigners, especially the Dutch, and enjoying the profits of the expanding tobacco and fur trade. This prosperous era came to an end with the Restoration in 1660.

The Navigation Acts forced the tobacco trade to use only English ships and English ports, which were at first insufficient to handle it; tobacco piled up in Virginia and in England, and prices plummeted. The wealthy planters weathered this depression, but the small farmers faced ruin. Serious discontent spread and was aggravated by Governor Berkeley's high-handed policies, by his favoritism toward the wealthy tidewater planters, and by his refusal to sanction a campaign against the Native Americans who had been attacking frontier settlements. These grievances brought the eruption of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. The unfortunate death of Nathaniel Bacon left the yeomen leaderless, and they were put down so ruthlessly that Berkeley was recalled to England.

Expansion of the plantation system was made possible only with the use of slave labor (first recognized in law in 1662), and tens of thousands of Africans were being imported every year by the end of the century. Small, independent cultivators, unable to compete with the plantation-slave system, formed the nucleus of a poor white class that drifted southward or pioneered to the west. Also contributing to westward settlement were the French Huguenots, who came to Virginia by the end of the 17th cent. and began to settle the Piedmont.

Westward movement was stimulated under Gov. Alexander Spotswood , who himself discovered (1716) the Swift Run Gap in the Blue Ridge Mts., leading into the Shenandoah valley. Spotswood also imported (1714-17) Germans to work his iron furnaces in the Piedmont area, and numerous others followed their countrymen. They helped settle the Shenandoah valley (beginning c.1730) as did many newcomers from Pennsylvania-German Lutherans, English Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and a lesser number of Welsh Baptists.

Soil exhaustion from continuous tobacco cultivation hastened the westward march, as did the settlement activities of land speculators like Spotswood and William Byrd (d. 1744). Many of these speculators were indebted eastern planters attempting to salvage their fortunes. The Ohio Company grant (1749) furthered exploration beyond the Allegheny Mts. but brought conflict with the French.

The activities and interests of the new frontier settlements contrasted sharply with the plantation life of the tidewater region, where the lavish material life of the planter aristocracy was complemented by high cultural accomplishments and by the spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment. The last of the French and Indian Wars , in which Virginians-notably Col. George Washington -were prominent, ended the French obstacle to westward migration. After the war many indebted planters were disturbed by England's own limitations on westward settlement.



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